Sunday, 18 November 2012

ATP World Tour Finals Reaction - Mr Invincible Triumphs Again

Year end no.1 two years in a row, Novak Djokovic won his second Year End Championships with victory over Roger Federer in a breathtaking duel. It was at times unbalanced with momentum switching dramatically at the beginning and end of both sets, but the quality at times was staggering and the shotmaking simply ridiculous. Federer was fast out of the blocks in the first set, pulling away to a 3-0 lead, but Djokovic didn't waver and dug in his heels to eventually break back, finding his defensive game and deflecting back all Federer could throw at him. The tiebreaker was a turning point, featuring an incredible point Federer won in which he hit a crosscourt forehand winner that was almost behind him, to save the first set point, but Djokovic eventually took it on his next opportunity. The momentum firmly behind him, Djokovic broke Federer straight away and was leading 40-0 on his own serve to consolidate the break, but made a succession of weak unforced errors that handed the break right back and re-energised Federer, who started to reproduce the tennis he was playing for much of the first set. He broke Djokovic not long after and was holding serve comfortably until he came to serve for the set leading 5-4 - at which point Djokovic made his signature surge to break with some incredible clutch play. Minutes later he was 6-5 up with a match point on Federer's serve. The way he clinched the title was magnificent - stretched wide on to his backhand side by a net rushing Federer he stayed low and ripped a searing backhand down the line, and his roar was just as exciting. It was an extraordinary and apposite end to a year which has seen an obscene level of quality, - there can be no doubt that the is the golden era - and by the time the Australian Open comes around the expectation will be just as high.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

ATP World Tour Finals Semi Finals Preview

The semi finals of the year ending championships are set, and they're two clashes of potentially epic magnitude: Djokovic vs Del Potro and Federer vs Murray. For me there are no clear predictions - each has the ability to defeat the other - but here's a summary of what to expect.

Djokovic vs del Potro

Juan Martin del Potro played brilliantly to beat Federer yesterday, serving powerfully and precisely, and consistently putting Federer under duress with his crushing forehand. If he can replicate this form against Djokovic, he'll give himself a chance to break through the world no.1's diamond strength defence and dictate from the baseline. As ever, against the best returner in the game he'll need to serve with high percentages similar to those he produced against Federer in the final set of that match, as well as follow strong serves up with some first strike, pressing play. Their last encounter on a hard court at the US Open demonstrated just how hard Djokovic is to break down at the back of the court in long rallies, and del Potro has to force the play early on to avoid repeating the loss in which he fought valiantly but was still downed in straights. So in short, Djokovic is still the favourite, but del Potro possesses the ability and firepower to repeat his performance in the 2009 World Tour Finals. Additionally, there has been evidence to suggest there is an element of jadedness in Djokovic, who has started a couple of his matches quite slowly, especially in his 3 set win against Murray. If he starts slow del Potro has to take advantage and put the Serb on the back foot. But as we've seen for two years now, Djokovic's ability to fight back from the semblance of a defeat is so good it's unnatural. And that's likely how the match will play out - del Potro to start strong, Djokovic to come roaring back, but shoot me down for being a contrarian, this time I think the Tower will win in 3 bruising sets.

Federer vs Murray

After beating Federer at the Olympics and following it with his first Grand Slam, Murray has shed the element of doubt that he can beat his contemporaries on the biggest occasions. Despite losing the Wimbledon final to Federer he has now won 5 straight sets against him, utilising his unique game which Federer has recently struggled to deal with. Aside from a poor start against Berdych and lapses in concentration against Djokovic, Murray has looked good this week, serving strongly and displaying a positive intent to be aggressive. Federer's form has been solid, but he has at times looked fragile; the first set against David Ferrer he was fortunate not to have lost, serving at a very low first serve percentage and spared by Ferrer missing multiple break points, and against del Potro he played an atrocious tiebreaker, missing several backhands. He can't afford to be slack on the big points against Murray, who will be galvanised by his home crowd and unlike Ferrer will be all over Federer's second serve if he fails to make a sizeable number of first serves. I expect Murray to extend his winning streak over Federer in 3 sets. 

Sunday, 4 November 2012

ATP World Tour Finals 2012 Preview

The groups have been set for another electrifying clash between the top 8 players in the world. Rafael Nadal's absence is still conspicuous, but regardless, this is going to be a huge face off for the current top 3 which will set the tone for the first Grand Slam of 2013. Novak Djokovic has secured the year end no.1 ranking for the second year in succession; Federer is defending the title he has now won twice in succession, and Murray is looking to end his career year with a flourish. They are certainly the front runners - but at this time of year, don't be surprised if neither man wins the tournament. Ferrer, Tsonga, Del Potro and Berdych are all players with the ability to take down the big 3, and if they hit top form expect some fierce battles from the group stage to the final.

Group breakdown:

Group A: Djokovic, Murray, Berdych, Tsonga

If there's a group of death, this has to be it. Djokovic and Murray are the obvious choices to make the semi finals, but Berdych and Tsonga are perhaps the two players you don't want to have to play back to back in the group stage. Both possess heavy artillery off the ground, huge serves and are excellent on indoor hardcourt. If Tsonga in particular turns up to London in good form, he loves playing on grand stages and could knock off one of the favourites. Berdych has been excellent form in this half of the year and is more than capable of causing an upset too, if his power play style is clicking. Combine that with the unexpected exits of Murray and Djokovic from the Paris Masters last week, it suggests either one may be feeling the fatigue of a long season in which they have battled many times. Comparably however, both are in much better form than this time last year, and I'd still expect both to make the semi finals.

Group B: Federer, Ferrer, Del Potro, Tipsarevic

Federer shouldn't have much trouble making it to the final four with this competition, with only a potential loss coming against Del Potro, who defeated him in his hometown tournament of Basel two weeks ago. More interesting is the fight for the final spot in the semi finals - Del Potro is the favourite, but I'm not counting out Ferrer, who is coming off his first Masters title in Paris, and must be confident he can equal his performance last year. He holds a strong record over Del Potro and the ability to neutralise the giant Argentinian's power, and it could be an early pivotal group match in the round robin stage. Overall Del Potro's form this year has been impressive, and it would be great to see him challenging for the title again, as he did in his flagship year of 2009. Tipsarevic plays the role of spoiler, but I don't see him taking down Federer indoors, Del Potro, or Ferrer, with whom he shared an epic 5 set match at the US Open this year.

Semi-finalists: Djokovic, Murray, Federer, Del Potro

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

He Got There In The End: Andy Murray, US Open 2012 Champion

It took 5 times of asking, and years of disappointment but Andy Murray has joined the illustrious company of Grand Slam winners. Even without the significance of being the first British man to win a Grand Slam in a three quarters of a century, it was a fantastic moment seeing him finally claim a major after so much physical and emotional investment. Perhaps the most low key celebration after winning a Grand Slam I've ever seen, it indicated the sheer relief of owning one after being ordained year upon year to win one, and facing the suggestion that it might never happen.

But the way in which he won could not have been more emphatic. Defeating Novak Djokovic, winner of the past 3 hard court Grand Slams he reversed the criticism directed at his supposedly weak mentality and lack of mettle at pressure moments, holding his nerve and timing his final set push with a brilliant demonstration of individual willpower. It was without doubt a magnificent match, one of the all time classic Grand Slam finals and contained some of the most unimaginable tennis played all years, superseding even their 5 hour encounter at the Australian Open earlier this year. The first set alone lasted 1 hour and a half and featured an exhibition length, 54 shot rally - although the quality was severely affected by the windy conditions, Murray and Djokovic still managed to push each other to the limit as far as possible. Murray's adaptation to the conditions benefited him in the first set as Djokovic struggled with his footwork, and when the tiebreaker came around he seemed the more stable of the two players. Like the majority of the first set the breaker was a cagey affair with neither man taking the initiative, but Murray took it with some controlled aggression and served strongly at the right moments.

The mammoth set completed, Djokovic was winded and Murray took control in the second, pulling out to a sizable lead. Closing it out eventually 7-5, there was still the indiciation from Djokovic that he was about to mount a comeback - he really is the man who cannot stay dead in Grand Slams these days, and by the fourth set it seemed as if he was about to pull off another impossible comeback as Murray appeared to be running out of energy. The rallies continued to be lengthy and ferocious with some of the most dazzling displays of defence and counterpunching ever seen - it was fascinating to watch the two best backhands in the world trading pound for pound from the baseline, looking for openings and angles. Owing to their combined consistency off the ground off that wing each man seemed a wall to the other - particularly for Djokovic, until he found his aggressive edge from the third set onwards could not break through Murray's defence. The quality of the tennis that night was unbelievable, and along with the Australian Open is just another demonstration of what it takes to win a Grand Slam. There is a chasm between the top 4 Grand Slam winners and everyone beneath, and that is only set to continue for the next 2-3 years with Murray and Djokovic in their prime, Federer still playing and Nadal possibly returning for the Australian Open in 2013.

For Murray the chasm has now been closed and as far as a tennis player can feel complete, he can be assured that he is remembered within the highest echelons of the sport as someone who was able to mark his name in an era of multiple slam winners. A big piece of the puzzle must be accredited to the best decision in Murray's career in hiring Ivan Lendl, whose failure and then triumph in his 5th Grand Slam final mirrors Murray's exactly. There seems to be something that Lendl sees of himself in Murray, and Murray is deeply indebted to Lendl for guiding him to both an Olympic Gold Medal and the US Open title. The journey has been an arduous one, but now Murray will have that core of belief to go on and win more, to feel that he genuinely belongs amongst the circle of Grand Slam champions and press forward to challenge for the no.1 ranking.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

US Open 2012 Final Preview: Andy Murray vs Novak Djokovic

Novak Djokovic Novak Djokovic of Serbia returns a shot against Paolo Lorenzi of Italy  during their men's single first round match on Day Two of the 2012 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 28, 2012 in the Flushing neigborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
So the final has been set. After weathering a great start by David Ferrer and some gruelling, lengthy rallies, Djokovic secured his place in the final to reignite a rivalry which is developing into what could be one of the great rivalries of modern tennis. The clash tomorrow in NYC will be their latest in a Grand Slam since their 5 hour thriller at the Australian Open this year, where the opportunity for Murray's first Grand Slam is once again at stake. The Australian Open was the first tournament Murray played under the tutelage of Ivan Lendl, and since then Murray seems to have moved forward and developed as a player, accomplishing his greatest achievement in becoming the Olympic champion. It seems ripe time for him to win his premiere slam. We have of course heard this many times before, but with his masterful performance at the Olympics, he should have a hugely positive experience to draw upon when he faces the most formidable man on a hard court for the past two years, who is chasing his fourth hard court major in a row. The past two matches have been a showcase for Djokovic's staggering defensive capabilities as the mighty hitting del Potro was unable to batter through the Serbian stronghold and nor was the dogged David Ferrer. Dubbed the 'elastic man', his ability to redirect powerful drives and retrieve normally unreturnable serves has been more daunting than his aggressive game. It's almost impossible to hit through him. But Murray has several more weapons to trouble him, and a backhand that can match Djokovic's pound for pound.

A possible key to the match is how well Murray serves - if he keeps his percentages high and plays with enough variation to keep Djokovic off balance he'll be able to take earlier strikes and not trade too much from the baseline. The more capable volleyer, Murray has to be looking to shorten the points and finish at the net when possible, because getting into protracted rallies with Djokovic does not bode well when the Serb is defending the way he is currently. He has to move Djokovic side to side and try to draw him into the forecourt where he is less comfortable coming forward. Expect plenty of sublime passing shots from both tomorrow. For Djokovic, he is the man to beat, realistically speaking. If he executes the way he has been doing he's going to be almost insurmountable on this surface, particularly if he combines his phenomenal defence with an aggressive mindset. Murray will play plenty of touch shots, and Djokovic needs to be ready to take those types of shots on and play as close to the baseline as possible.

It's a tantalising prospect and a superb way to end the year of Grand Slams. My prediction:

A 5 set classic, Murray the victor. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Future of Rafael Nadal

After pulling out of both the Olympics and now the US Open due to his perpetual problems with tendonitis, Rafael Nadal's future and longevity in the game has once again come into question. Although his chronic tendonitis has not derailed him substantially since 2009 when he was forced to miss Wimbledon, this is the first time since then that he has pulled out of a major, temporarily curtailing his pursuit of Roger Federer's all time Grand Slam tally, which stands at 17. Following the French Open and another tremendous season on clay, it looked as if he was returning to his best form and poised to finish the year with multiple slams, but instead he was ousted unceremoniously at Wimbledon by one hit wonder Lukas Rosol, and now will have to wait patiently till next season to resume the chase. The patience Nadal has in abundance as one of the most stoical and philosophical players on the tour, but the ground lost could be quite substantial by the start of the next year.

Nadal however has said very wisely that ranking is the least of his concerns. Recuperation is paramount for him and as we have seen in the past, he has been able to recover and come back even stronger each time after being derailed by injury. Furthermore, his doctor has said that the injury is not a serious career-ending one, but that it requires a substantial amount of rest. To look at it from a coldly objective perspective, the scenario is better than would the news have been the dreaded prelude to the end of his career - thankfully for Nadal and his legions of fans, his career has not been entirely and definitely decided by his injuries, yet .

Some have suggested that Nadal should start skipping all non-mandatory events and perform at the bare minimum of Masters series tournaments to save himself for the Grand Slams, similar to the Williams sisters approach to the women's tour. Perhaps he may have to out of necessity, but for Nadal, who hungers for match practice and wins, it seems completely opposite to the way he plays and treats the game. Very much a momentum player, a lack of match fitness outside of the Grand Slams would possibly be damaging for his overall game. I cannot see Nadal doing something as drastic as foregoing all non-mandatory events, but as he is doing now, continue preserving his health and thinking of the future so as to avoid an irreparable injury.

For slightly more selfish reasons, people and myself included miss Nadal because it is simply not the same without him. The US Open which has been underway for two days now still feels as if there is a huge gap which his presence normally fills in Grand Slams; it's the energy, the insatiable tenacity, the indomitable will to win and the sheer excitement of seeing Nadal hit his signature, outrageous passing shots that make people miss him so much. He says he would like to return, if healthy, to play the next Davis Cup fixture for Spain - here's hoping he recovers with and rejoins the company of his top 4 peers with the utmost alacrity.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Nadal Wins Record 8th Monte Carlo Masters

Monte Carlo remained a clay constructed stronghold for Rafael Nadal today, after he defeated Novak Djokovic in resounding fashion to claim the tournament for the 8th consecutive time, snapping a 7 match losing streak to the Serb in the process. His octet of titles is a staggering achievement, and will likely never be repeated by another player. He holds the record for most consecutive titles won at one tournament; most consecutive titles at a Masters series tournament and and a host of other records which can only attest further to his complete domination of the surface. But he was up against a man threatening to create blots on that record after he handed two defeats in clay finals to Nadal last year without even dropping a set. A lot was on the line for Nadal today, but he produced a commanding performance to subdue an already subdued looking Novak Djokovic.

All elements of his game were clicking today as he managed to buffer himself against the attacking strategies Djokovic had used so successfully against him in their last 7 encounters. He played consistently aggressively with excellent depth off both wings, changed pace expertly and most noteworthy, served with conviction, direction and variety against the best returner in the world right now. He dictated points for the majority of the match and did not get sucked into the same tactics which had failed in his previous attempts to stop Djokovic during his imperial run which started last year. Djokovic was visibly not at his best today, committing over double his winner count in unforced errors, but that does not detract from Nadal's fine performance. By habitude, Monte Carlo is the springboard from which Nadal galvanises himself to dominate during the clay court season up to Wimbledon, and this was a hugely encouraging display from the world no.2 which banishes the haunt Djokvic has put upon him for the past year or so. Even though Djokovic showed last year that he could stay with Nadal on clay, and that this year he will still be his most dangerous competitor, it is incredible to think that every time Nadal steps on the clay for the first time, his year starts for real, and that he is still the man to beat on la terre battue.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Djokovic wins Miami

A superb performance from Novak Djokovic oversaw stolid resistance from Andy Murray in the Sony Ericsson Open to secure a third Miami title for the world no.1. Murray defeated Djokovic recently in Dubai and convincingly, and having benefited from two walkovers most would have expected him to have the physical edge over the Serb. But Djokovic quickly established a level of play that Murray struggled to keep up with and took the first set with ease at 6-1, coming through a 10 minute plus fourth game to break the Scot and take control of the match. The second set was much, much tighter and on display was brilliant re-direction of pace from both players, astounding defence and some punishing rallies in the Miami heat. Murray and Djokovic are very similar players, but the fine line which distinguishes one from the other was visible yesterday throughout the match, and that was ultimately the difference in the second set tiebreaker. After having recovered a mini break after going down 2-0 in the breaker, Murray gave the initiative straight back by double faulting to go 3-1 down. A Djokovic victory seemed inevitable after that point, and he comfortably saw the match out. Murray is still slightly lacking in mental fortitude when he needs it the most, and should he have held his nerve in the tiebreaker, he would have given himself a good chance to clinch the third set. Of course, it is all very well to suggest that it is a weakness to lack nerves of steel at the right moments, but Murray sometimes needs to hold his focus longer so he doesn't throw those moments away, as he did in the tiebreaker - another example was at the Australian Open where he led Djokovic by two sets to one. Djokovic comparatively held his nerve at those pressure points in the match, ensuring he was watertight when he needed to be, playing with controlled aggression, and notably he served uncannily when Murray started knocking on the door during his service games. Djokovic has to be pleased with his form right now going into the clay court season. He hasn't exerted himself unduly by getting into any marathons with Rafael Nadal (that is likely to be scheduled in Monte Carlo) and he has so far defended the points he accrued from last year, dropping little ground to his chasers, Nadal and Federer. The prospect of an early clay showdown between Nadal and Djokovic in Monte Carlo could set the tone for the rest of the clay court season and it will be fascinating to see how it shapes the road to Roland Garros.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Australian Open 2012: Reactions

I think it's fitting that my response to one of the most exhilarating Grand Slams in the recent history of tennis has taken a while to be mulled over and committed in writing. For how do you do justice to a 6 hour long Grand Slam final (the longest Grand Slam final in history) in which two men combined to produce possibly the most titanic physical and mental battle the sport has ever seen? My impression after the match was of incomprehensibility; an inability to put into words what had just been witnessed. It was an epic of such mountainous proportions that victory and defeat became but circumstantial in the grand scheme of what was surely one of the great finals from any sport in the world. It transcended the boundaries of tennis as a niche sport, grabbed the attention of sports fans around the world, and did wonders for a sport that some have foolishly accused of not being capable of brutality. It has become tiring in the past 6 months to say it, but both men have contributed to raising the bar once again, accomplishing history and producing another dimension to the golden era. It has set the tone (and the bar) for the rest of the year, as well as setting off feverish speculation over what could happen this season, which just so happens to be an Olympic one. Here are my thoughts, predictions, and pontifications from the Australian Open.

What more to say about Novak Djokovic? He survived the longest Grand Slam in history, facing no less than one of the greatest warriors to ever play the game, and he did it 48 hours after another 5 set epic with Andy Murray, in which he was similarly faced with defeat in the final set. He looked a beaten man at times in both matches, but Djokovic has a well of unshakeable determination these days that he can reach into when he needs it the most. The man has become almost nerveless under pressure, and unflinchingly brave at crunch time in matches. The reaction after the final was not just of awe at the historic event, but partly the astonishment that Djokovic had managed to turn the match around against a man known for being a mental giant, and following what was a seismic shift in momentum at the time. Momentum is an almost impossible thing to stop, but Djokovic has shown time and time again that he can stand in front of the freight train, take its impact and power his way back into the match when all the odds are against him. It takes a phenomenal exertion of willpower to do that, and Djokovic did it twice in a row when it mattered the most. Mentally he is the man of steel right now, and it will take a mighty loss to dent his confidence, which is sky high and beyond right now. As for his tennis, his return game was more lethal than ever, reducing Rafael Nadal to admiration of what he can do with that shot, and offering praise for a weapon which was without doubt the reason he managed to fight his way back into the match. He may well be the best returner in history, better than Connors, better than Agassi. His groundstrokes were heavy, impeccably measured and devastating for Rafael Nadal, who was only intermittently able to control the pace of the bombardment. His forehand was firing, and his backhand was unbreakable as ever. Of the top 4,  he has the fewest weaknesses, and they are only relative ones at that. His forehand is however still the best target to attack, and Nadal went to that spot with varying success; and a potential element lacking in his game is his unwillingness to attack the net when the opportunity arises. But the bottom line is that it will take a stupendous performance, such as that produced by Nadal or Murray to even get close to defeating him. While Djokovic has emerged the victor, there is hope at least that Djokovic's hunters will eventually get to overturn him at a Grand Slam.

For Rafael Nadal, it was a hugely positive progression. After being virtually smoked in every match he played with Djokovic since Miami, he pushed Djokovic to the limit and then some. He forced him to struggle for his 5th Grand Slam and into a deciding set, which he very nearly clinched, and probably should have done after leading 4-2 with the wind of momentum firmly behind him. He was playing aggressively, serving effectively and looked re-energised after eking out the 4th set so emphatically, before he made the possibly fatal error of missing a simple backhand putaway serving at 30-15. At the time it was a hugely significant miss and gave Djokvic the impetus he needed to turn the match around, but Nadal was quick in his post-mortem conference to dismiss the impression of the shot as the reason he was broken, and eventually lost the match. He instead pointed lucidly and not lamentedly to the brilliance of Djokovic's return game - and it was an incredible return that forced Nadal to spill a forehand on break point that enabled him to get back into the match. It is not only admirable for Nadal to recognise that the Serb may well be the greatest returner in the history of the game, but healthy for him to acknowledge that it was not just an error on his part that lost the match, but also the shot which (not coincidentally) bailed him out of the US Open semi-final when he was match point down. Despite suffering arguably the most crushing loss of his career, he left with a remarkable sense of direction, and  the knowledge that he has the ability to put himself in positions to win against his nemesis again. And should they meet once more at the French Open, I cannot imagine that he will lose to Djokovic on his home turf. As far as paradoxes go, it was an encouraging loss. There were however still elements where Djokovic's superiority was apparent, and which Nadal must improve quickly. He avowed to play inside the court and be more aggressive against Djokovic, but for the majority of the match he reverted to his defensive mode and stayed well behind the baseline in rallies and when receiving serve. Too often he fell into his own trap of going crosscourt into Djokovic's backhand with the same ineffective result, and was too predictable with his tactics. On the other hand, he served better than in the US Open final, producing 10 aces, and during the tournament seemed to have improved his sliding left hander serve, which worked particularly effectively against Berdych and Federer. However it still baffles commentators where his huge 130 mph+ serve which he unveiled at the 2010 US Open has gone to. He needs it more than ever, and it would be a big weapon to mobilise against the return game of Djokovic.

It was Djokovic's third Australian Open, his fifth Grand Slam, and his third major in a row starting with Wimbledon last year. He has his sights set on the French Open and the accomplishment of the 'Djoker slam', and should he manage that, well, the effect on the tennis world would be earth shattering. He would be the only man other than Rod Laver to achieve four slams in a row, and furthermore in the presence of two of the greatest players to play the game, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. After winning the Laureus Award for Sportsman of the Year, he was quoted as saying he believes anything as possible, including winning Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the Olympics. One thing is for certain: Nadal, Federer and Murray will all be out to make sure that feat is a bridge too far.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Australian Open Preview

What a difference a year makes. Flash back a year to last year's Australian Open when all eyes were on Rafael Nadal winnning his fourth grand slam in a row to accomplish a calendar slam - or what was being affectionately called the 'Rafa slam'. Djokovic at this time was still, relatively speaking, a footnote to the Nadal-Federer duopoly, who had won the last four majors between them, but with his Davis Cup triumph he was starting to gain ground, and the footnote was to be replaced with an exclamation mark at the end of his name.

This year the narratives are richer and more compelling than ever. Many commentators have remarked that the men's draw is more open than it has ever been, and that this may be one of the rare occasions when the top 4 players are all at their strongest at the same time. Novak Djokovic is attempting to keep his Grand Slam narrative going by claiming his third in a row, and even though he hasn't played a tournament yet this year, he looked imperious at the Abu Dhabi exhibition, dismantling both Federer and Ferrer at the loss of less than 10 games. Nadal, who has been afflicted by a shoulder injury for the past two months has assured that it is in perfect condition, and in his presser declared that he feels reinvigorated to get back to his best form, armed with a slightly heavier racket which he hopes will produce more power. Federer finished the year strongly by winning the World Tour Finals, and with the Olympics his main priority, there will be extra motivation for him this year to get back to the top. An injury scare with his back has apparently subsided, and Federer will feel confident that he can take anyone who stands in his way and fulfil what might be called his phoenix rising from the ashes narrative. Perhaps the most fascinating intrigue of the top 4 is Andy Murray and his new coach Ivan Lendl. As I commented in a previous post, I expect Lendl could do wonders for Murray's game and mentality, and if everything materialises correctly for him, it might well result in his first major. It is an enticing multiplicity of prospects for the top 4, and a fascinating start a year which is also an Olympic one.

Draw Analysis:

Novak Djokovic has by far the easiest draw, and is unlikely to be tested until the fourth round, where he may meet the rolling Canadian with a fearsome serve, Milos Raonic. And even then, his return game and superior ground strokes should be enough to see neutralise the rising star's heavy game. He may face David Ferrer in the quarter finals, but it is hard to see him staying with Djokovic despite a convincing win over him at the World Tour Finals two months ago. Federer has the next smoothest passage to the semi finals, with Mardy Fish as the highest seed in his quarter. He has a joker in the pack via a possible meeting with Ivo Karlovic in the third round, but realistically the giant Croat does not have a chance of breaking the Swiss' still running grand slam quarter final streak. The mercurial Dolgopolov Jr. is in his quarter, but it is hard to see him troubling the four time winner, as his game is simply too erratic to produce a consistent performance (he scraped through in 5 sets today). The one big name in there is the talented and powerful Juan Martin del Potro, who is still on the road back to the top and possesses the firepower to blast anyone, including Federer, off the court.

Nadal has a tricky route to the semi-finals with John Isner as a looming third round opponent. Isner gave Nadal a very real scare at the French Open in the first round last year, and on hard courts his huge serve will be even more potent for an upset. Other big servers include compatriot Feliciano Lopez and Kevin Anderson. Tomas Berdych is a potential quarter final opponent for Nadal, and has been playing some excellent tennis recently with his strong semi final finish at the World Tour Finals acting as a strong reminder of how good he can be when he catches fire. Berdych has given Nadal trouble in the past, and has the best chance of inflicting a shock defeat on the Spaniard.

At the other end of the spectrum, Murray has an extremely difficult draw. His first round opener against the plucky Ryan Harrison is the hardest among the top 4, and the young American won't go down without a fight. He may meet Gael Monfils in the fourth round, who is just coming off an excellent showing at Doha where he defeated Rafael Nadal, but even more alarmingly he has the dark horse for the title in his corner, Jo Wilfried Tsonga. The blockbusting Frenchman won Doha recently and was arguably the second best player in the world at the year end, and is looking poised to play the role of spoiler at the grand slams once again. Unfortunately for Murray, if the players meet their seedings in the draw, he will likely have to go through Tsonga, then Djokovic, and then either Federer or Nadal in the final, a monumental task - but a possible one under the new tutelage of Ivan Lendl.

Semi-final predictions:

Novak Djokovic vs Andy Murray
Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Thoughts on Ivan Lendl, Andy Murray's New Coach

It had been rumoured that Ivan Lendl would be announced as Andy Murray's new coach, and the Scot confirmed the other day that he has signed on. It will be fascinating to see the impact Lendl might possibly have on his game, and how the 8 time Grand Slam champion can contribute to helping Murray towards his first. It is also interesting because of the parallel between Lendl and Murray, in that Lendl took several attempts before he won his first major, and similarly Murray has made three slam finals but come up short each time without winning a set. Lendl is the perfect inspiration for Murray to remain persistent and to keep positive despite his numerous failures and set backs throughout the year. 2011 has been Murray's best year by far, in which he made a final and three semi finals at all four Grand Slams, and Lendl could be the key to crack the nut and go one further by winning his first major. He may also try to instil in Murray the icy resilience and level headed demeanour which many remember Lendl for, and this may be beneficial in helping Murray overcome the troughs in his year that usually follow from taking tough losses in Grand Slams. After losing in the 2010 and 2011 Australian Opens, Murray fell into the doldrums each time, playing negative tennis and losing to players he shouldn't normally be losing to. Lendl may be able to help Murray overcome these periodical problems, improve his on court attitude, and manage him so he peaks at the majors and avoids losses he shouldn't really be enduring for a player of his calibre.

How Lendl will affect Murray's strategy and playing style will remain to be seen and we can't expect to see much difference in the next few weeks up until the Australian Open. But perhaps he will encourage Murray to execute a more aggressive approach and adopt more positive tactics on court. However, Murray has had professional disagreements in the past, notably with Brad Gilbert, and he is stubborn enough not to listen to advice suggesting to him that he needs to play more consistently aggressive tennis. But I think that the presence of Lendl is a very positive collaboration and that Murray will be willing to listen to what he has to say, and to put into action counsel which may well earn him his first Grand Slam. It is a bold, significant move which goes with the flow of tennis' continual improvement under the aegis of the current top 3, Djokovic, Nadal and Federer, and signals that Murray is ready to compete amongst them for the majors.